Interview with Eric Kansa (OpenContext)

von | Nov 20, 2017 | Allgemein

 Eric Kansa is the Program Director for Open Context. he holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology, and archeological field experience in the Near East, Egypt, Italy and North America. His research interests explore informatics and policy research data, ethics, and professional context of the digital humanities. He runs research and development for Open Context and manages the technical aspects of data publishing and archiving.



Can you tell me a bit about the history, concept and mission of OpenContext (OC)?

We have 101 public projects, and another 20 in preparation. Most are archaeological, but do have 1 project in published from public health research.

Can you give us some numbers about OC? How many datasets have been published to date, what disciplines are represented, etc.?

Most data come from individual specialist researchers, some from excavation teams (with multiple specialists). The majority of data we publish relevant to North American archaeology comes from US state government agencies that manage cultural resources. Most of the people who have published with us are American, and a few are from the UK. There are currently 3 datasets in preparation from EU-based researchers.

OC has established a successful business model for publishing open data in Archaeology. What are the key “ingredients” in your “recipe”?

We’re constantly working to secure adequate funding. The current political context in the US makes this especially challenging, as some key government funding sources have been threatened with total elimination, and we expect health-care insurance costs to rise drastically. So our main approach is to try to develop multiple sources of revenue.

We’re very grateful for continued support from grants, but recently we’ve earned a larger portion of our income from data publishing fees. We have also done consulting and contracting work to raise revenue. Sometimes this works well, as it gives us a chance to work with a wider professional network, but we try to limit consulting work because it can distract us from our primary mission of publishing open archaeological data. We also don’t try to do everything in house.

We use data preservation and repository services provided by other organizations, that means we don’t have to try to finance a much larger and more complex organization, technology, and workflows. So, by staying small, relatively flexible, and by working with a larger network of libraries we can keep costs down.

OC’s 1-minute introductory video ends with the motto “Data is for discovery and inspiration”. What is your favourite example of unexpected use ever made by anyone of contents published by OpenContext?

We aspire to support all sorts of use, not just research outcomes. I’d love to see more artistic and creative uses of open data in archaeology, since I think making the past come to life in new forms of expression should be an important goal for archaeology. One area I’m excited to see is that some people are using Open Context in teaching. Some colleagues told me that they just had a paper accepted in Advances in Archaeological Practice (a journal published by the Society for American Archaeology) about this. But the most unexpected use I think comes from Shawn Graham’s „sonification“ of data he obtained from text-mining excavation diaries from Kenan Tepe in Turkey. He used Open Context’s API to get all the field notes, ran some text-analysis algorithms on the content, and then transformed that to sound, in addition to more conventional data visualizations. I’m not sure it will be a musical classic, but it sure illustrates very surprising uses of archaeological data!

(You can listen to the sound track here:

I appreciated very much this word of caution about the use open licenses that I’ve found on OC’s website: “Open Context publishes open data, free of access and reuse restrictions. While open access and open licensing of research data are powerful tools for encouraging better and more collaborative scientific practice, they are not universally appropriate.”

Can you give us some concrete examples of cases where using an open license was deemed unappropriate?

Absolutely. I think many people appreciate how the ethics of open data depend on context and on power dynamics. I think many would agree that we can promote better social outcomes and greater justice by demanding more openness and transparency to hold the powerful accountable, while at the same time, privacy can help safeguard people that need protection from power. So, I don’t see a contradiction between promoting openness and privacy protections in different contexts. This helps shape our thinking about intellectual property policies with Open Context. Colonialism has a powerful and painful historical legacy impacting many people in many areas of the world, especially the Americas.

We want to make sure open data is applied thoughtfully so that it does not reinforce or perpetuate colonialism. Intellectual property laws and norms all vary cross-culturally, and so do expectations about privacy. So it’s important to work collaboratively, using approaches like „community archaeology“, to understand what can and should be shared appropriately in a venue like Open Context. Fundamentally, we think respecting people and building genuine partnerships across communities are much more important goals than simply adding more gigabytes of Creative Commons licensed content,

What would be your advice to researchers who are planning a new project and aim to archive and publish the project’s data as open data? What can they do, for example, to be later on in the position of being able to openly share their data?

Good question. We’re actually actively researching this right now with the „SLO-Data“ project. This research involves some workplace ethnography to document and study how archaeologists create data and how these processes impact later archiving and reuse. We just got word we have publication accepted in the journal Advances in Archaeological Practice with Ixchel Faniel that will share some specific advice. But in general terms, researchers should consider:

  • Data validation (ways to make data entry / creation less error prone)
  • Set clear expectations about attribution, credit
  • Set clear expectations that project data will be shared (and archived)
  • Set expectations for how to merge different datasets together. We see lots of problems merging specialist data (zooarchaeological, lithics, etc.) with other data because of inconsistencies in identifiers.

Relevant links:

Contact details for questions about the project:

Eric Kansa @kansa / ekansa [at] alexandriaarchive [dot] org

About Open Context

Open Context reviews, edits, annotates, publishes and archives research data and digital documentation.

It currently has 101 public projects, and another 20 in preparation. Most are archaeological, but it does have 1 project in published from public health research.

Linked Open Data

Open Context implements “Linked Open Data” methods for relating Open Context data with data published by other sources.

For example, the Pleiades Gazetteer is used so that some of Open Context data links, via shared concepts of geographic places, to other content important to Classics.

Similarly, faunal data published in Open Context references biological taxa described by the Encyclopedia of Life.


Kansa, Eric C. “Click Here to Save the Past” In Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: The Potential of Digital Archaeology, edited by Erin Walcek Averett, Jody Michael Gordon, and Derek B. Counts, 443-472. Grand Forks, ND: The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, 2016

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